Verdi’s Aida – a comparative review of 5 different recordings

I’m not quite sure how I’ve ended up with five different recordings of Verdi’s Aida. It’s not my favourite Verdi opera by a long chalk. Though it has magnificent music, the characters always seem more like human archetypes than flesh and blood people and I admire it rather than love it. Three of my recordings feature Callas, and, though I never think of Aida as a Callas role, she brings more meaning to it than most. Two of the Callas recordings (the ones that find her in the best voice) are live, but the sound on both is, at best tolerable, so the studio one is also a necessity, though the 1955 mono sound on that can’t hope to compare with the fabulous sound accorded the new Pappano set that was recorded in 2015.

Aida is of course the quintessential grand opera, famed throughout the world for extravagant stagings at the Arena di Verona, but actually, aside from the great Triumphal Scene, many of its scenes are played out in private, behind closed doors.

I started my journey with the famous live 1951 performance from Mexico, with Callas, Del Monaco, Dominguez and Taddei, conducted by Oliviero de Fabritiis.

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Well let’s get over the caveats. The sound is pretty atrocious; it crumbles and distorts and the balances are all over the place. The voices come through reasonably well, but you do have to listen through the sound, as it were. But what a performance! And a memento of what was undoubtedly a thrilling evening in the theatre.

Callas is in superb voice throughout, and makes more of the somewhat placid character of Aida than any other singer I have come across. The power she was able to summon at this point in her career has to be heard to be believed, a power that goes right up to that unwritten, but absolutely stunning top Eb in alt in the Triumphal Scene, a phenomenal sound, that excites the Mexicans so much you can almost hear them rip the seats apart. Ritorna vincitor is absolutely thrilling, the duet with Dominguez’s Amneris also superb, but, as always with Callas, it is the Nile Scene that provokes her most moving singing.

O patria mia is not her best moment. She seems momentarily preoccupied with the exposed top C at the end, a solid if not exactly dolce as marked note, but once past the aria, she is on more congenial ground, and, with Taddei a worthy partner, alternately stentorian, implacable, insinuating and relentless, runs the gamut of emotions in an exciting Nile Scene. In the ensuing duet with Radames, she finds a wealth of colour as she seduces and cajoles him.

Del Monaco, as usual, is not particularly subtle, but there is the clarion compensation of the voice itself, and, like all the Radames Callas sings with in the three recordings, makes a better hero than lover.

Dominguez is very impressive. This was her debut in the role, and occasionally she overplays her hand, but her singing is very exciting and the Mexicans give her a rousing reception.

De Fabritiis conducts a dramatic, but not particularly subtle, version of the score. Nowhere does he find the delicacy of Karajan or Pappano, or even Serafin, but subtlety is not really what this performance is about.

I next moved onto another live Callas performance; this one from Covent Garden in 1953, with Kurt Baum, Giulietta Simionato and Jess Walters, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli.

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Unfortunately Barbirolli turned out to be something of a disappointment. More subtle than De Fabritiis in Mexico admittedly, the performance lacks excitement and many of his tempi are unaccountably slow. Maybe his approach was more suited to the reserved Londoners than the excitable Mexicans, but the latter has a thrilling vitality completely missing in London.

There is no thrilling Eb in the Triumphal Scene, but Callas is still in superb voice. However Barbirolli’s slow tempi vitiate against some of her more dramatic moments. The I sacri numi section of Ritorna vincitor lacks the bite Callas usually brings to it, though she is able to spin out the final Numi pieta to even more heavenly lengths at Barbirolli’s slower tempo.

Baum is not quite as bad as his reputation, but he hardly ever phrases with distinction and he sobs and aspirates in what he evidently thought was the Italian manner. He also has a tendency to hold on to every top note as if his life depended on it, so that his duets, both with Callas and Simionato, become somewhat combative. That Callas manages to sing the final duet with the grace and delicacy she does is little short of miraculous, given Baum’s determination to bawl his way to his death.

Simionato, a more experienced Amneris than Dominguez, is magnificent and Barbirolli does finally wake up for her final scene, though you sense Simionato propelling the music forward and they almost become unstuck. Am I being picky, though, when I wonder if a little too much of Azucena creeps into Simionato’s interpretation? Amneris is after all a young princess, but more on that subject later.

Somewhat disappointed with Barbirolli, I moved on to the second Karajan recording, recorded in Vienna with Mirella Freni, Jose Carreras, Agnes Baltsa and Piero Cappuccilli.

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Karajan’s speeds in this, his second recording, of the opera are also spacious but much more vital. I’ve always found his first effort, with Tebaldi and Bergonzi, a little too self-consciously beautiful. This one is far more alive to the drama. It goes without saying that the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra play superbly and the sound is excellent analogue stereo, though the voices are a little too recessed for my liking, and are often submerged by the orchestra. Given that Karajan uses lighter, more lyrical voices than we have become used to, this does seem a somewhat perverse decision.

If singers of  Radames tend to break down into the heroic and poetic, Carreras is more in the latter camp. His voice is doubtless a notch too small for the part, but it was still a beautiful instrument at that time, and his is the most attractive Celeste Aida we have heard so far, though he doesn’t manage the pianissimo top B at the end. He is at his best in the final duet, his piano singing a welcome relief from the overloud Del Monaco and Baum.

Freni is very attractive, if a little lacking in personality. Her voice might also be considered a little light for the role, but she never forces and sings within her means, phrasing sensitively and singing cleanly off the text. She does nothing wrong, but set next to Callas, she just isn’t that interesting.

The best of the soloists is, without doubt, Agnes Baltsa. Here at last we have a believably young, spoiled princess, a plausible rival for Aida. Seductively sexy and driven to distraction by jealousy, she is convincingly remorseful at the end of the opera, nor does she sound like an Azucena in disguise. She is superbly effective in her duets with Radames and Aida, and gorgeous in the first scene of Act II. She is my favourite of all the Amnerises.

Cappuccilli I find efficient rather than inspired. He doesn’t stamp his authority on the role of Amonasro the way Taddei and Gobbi do, though, as usual, his breath control is exemplary. In a star studded cast, both Ramfis and the King (Ruggero Raimondi and Jose Van Dam) are excellent and we even get the silken voiced Katia Ricciarelli in the role of the Priestess.

From Karajan I turned to the latest addition to the Aida discography. Recorded in the studio, a rarity for opera recordings these days, it is conducted by Antonio Pappano, and stars Anya Harteros, Jonas Kaufmann, Ekaterina Semenchuk and Ludovic Tezier with Orchestra and Chorus of the Saint Cecilia Academy.

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As one might expect, the sound in this new digital recording is superb, much more naturally balanced than the Karajan, with the voices coming through beautifully. Pappano exerts a superb grip on the opera, and his might just be the best conducted version of the lot, in the best lyric Italian tradition of conductors like Serafin, more of whom below.

Best of the soloists is definitely Jonas Kaufmann, who might just be the best Radames ever to be recorded. He has both the heroics and the poetry (a deliciously ppp close to Celeste Aida) and is vocally the equal of all that Verdi throws at him. Throughout he phrases with sensitivity and imagination, and achieves miracles of grace in the final duet, with some genuine dolce singing. This is a great performance.

Harteros is in the Freni mould, vocally not quite as secure, but a little more interesting. She goes for a dolce top C in O patria mia, but it is a little shaky. She does not erase memories of Caballe (on the Muti recording) in the same music, but hers is nevertheless an attractive performance.

Semenchuk I don’t like at all. She has a typically vibrant Eastern European voice, with a tendency to be squally. She reminded me most of Elena Obrasztsova and sounds a good deal older than she looks in the photographs accompanying the recording. All the other Amnerises under consideration bring something more specific to the role, where she is more generalised, and consequently the big Act IV scene lacks tension.

If not quite in the Gobbi or Taddei class, when it comes to verbal acuity, Ludovic Tezier is a fine Amonasro and together he and Harteros, with Pappano’s inestimable help, deliver a fine Nile Duet. The basses are not quite in the same class as those on Karajan and Serafin.

Which brings me to Serafin and Callas’s studio recording of the opera.

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By the time this recording was made in 1955, Callas had given up the role of Aida, singing her last performances in Verona just a few months after the 1953 Covent Garden performances under Barbirolli.

Callas’s voice has thinned out quite a bit, and she sings a much more refined performance of the role, perhaps more in line with conventional interpretations, except of course that Callas can never be conventional. When Tebaldi sings Numi pieta at the end of Ritorna vincitor, she sings a pure lyrical line and it’s very pretty, but Callas reminds us that she is asking the Gods to take pity on her suffering. Time and time again she will illuminate a phrase here, a word there. The duet with Amneris abounds with contrast as the two women play off against each other, but it is the duet with Amonasro in the Nile Scene that holds the heart of this performance, the scene where Aida must choose country before love. Gobbi is at his incisive best as Amonasro, and I doubt I will ever hear this duet done better. Note too how eloquently Serafin makes the strings weep when Aida finally gives in, first with the climbing phrase on the cellos and then in the way he accentuates those stabbing violin figures, when Callas sings O patria, patria quanto mi costi. This is the real stuff of drama.

Tucker isn’t in Callas and Gobbi’s class I’m afraid. He has the right sound for the role, virile and forthright, but for every phrase delivered with just the right degree of slancio, there is another ruined by his tendency to aspirate and sob.

Barbieri is very fine, in the Simionato mould, and, with Serafin letting go a veritable storm in the orchestra, produces a thrillingly dramatic Act IV scena.

Both basses (Giuseppe Modesti as Ramfis, and especially Nicola Zaccaria as the King) are splendid, and Serafin, as you might have gathered, conducts a wonderfully dramatic version of the score, in the best Italian tradition.

So conclusions then. No doubt there will be some wondering why I didn’t include Solti and Muti. Well, Solti I’ve never taken to. I just can’t stand his bombastic, un-Italianate, unlyrical conducting, good though his cast is (though I’ve never quite joined in the general enthusiasm for Gorr’s Amneris). I know the Muti but don’t own it. Until Pappano came along I usually used to recommend it as the safest bet, and Caballe gives one of her finest performances as Aida, and it is still, if memory serves me correctly, worth considering.

From the five under consideration then, I’d say De Fabritiis in Mexico is essential listening, if only as a memento of a historical occasion and a truly thrilling evening in the theatre. It could never be a library version though because of the intransigent sound. From the point of view of a library choice, then the new Pappano would probably be the safest bet, even though it has the weakest Amneris. Forced to choose but one recording, though, I’d go for Serafin, with a rather regretful glance over my shoulder towards Baltsa’s Amneris. The mono sound is sometimes a bit boxy and not a patch on either Karajan or Pappano, but its studio acoustic is a good deal better than either De Fabritiis or Barbirolli, who, in any case, surprisingly trails in last place in this survey, despite the presence of both Callas and Simionato.

Callas’s vocal splendour is best caught in Mexico in 1951, but, the sound is a problem, so it’s Serafin for me, if only for the Amonasro/Aida Nile duet, the most thrilling on all these sets.

 

 

 

Callas in La Forza del Destino

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Recorded 19-21, 23-25, 27 August 1954, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

Oh my, oh my, oh my! Having spent an afternoon with this recording, I emerged thinking it was the greatest, most moving of Verdi’s operas, that this was its greatest recording, and that Leonora was Callas’s greatest Verdi role, to paraphrase the late John Steane’s review of the Callas Madama Butterfly.

Having now slightly recovered from its emotional impact, I am of course reminded of Callas’s Violetta, the Trovatore Leonora and Amelia, but, I would still place this recording very high in the Callas canon.

Leonora was actually Callas’s first Verdi role. She sang it in 1948 in Trieste, then in Ravenna in 1954 a few months before making this recording, but no more after that.

Verdi’s two Leonoras have some marked similarities and a singer who is successful in one will often be successful in the other (Leontyne Price springs to mind). On the other hand, the Forza role lies quite a bit lower, which is no doubt why Tebaldi is more comfortable in it than she is in Il Trovatore, which she never sang on stage, only on record. If the Trovatore Leonora’s bel canto roots are often glossed over, they are usually completely ignored in La Forza Del Destino, particularly in Act I, which requires a lot more vocal dexterity than it usually gets.

Listen to the aria Me pellegrina ed orfana and note how Callas marks the semi-quaver rests at Ti lascia ahime whilst still maintaining her impeccable legato, observing the downward portamento on the word sorte, the whole phrase sung in a single sweep. As usual the music is rendered with uncanny accuracy, as it is when she brilliantly articulates dotted notes in the cabaletta of the following duet with Alvaro (only too noticeable when Tucker comes galumphing after her, aspirating and puffing in an attempt to keep up).

But, as usual with Callas, she goes beyond accurate observation of the score to reveal the meaning behind the notes. Her very first words (oh angosica) tell us of the conflict in Leonora’s heart, her voice suffused with melancholy. Other sopranos may have given us a more beautifully poised sustained pianissimo top Bb in Pace pace, or drawn a firmer line in La vergine degli angeli, and those for whom such vocal niceties are paramount should probably look elsewhere, but that would be a pity for they would miss, according to Lord Harewood in Opera on Record,

an unparalleled musical sensibility and imagination, subtle changes of tonal weight through the wonderfully shaped set-pieces, and a grasp of the musico-dramatic picture which is unique.

Central to the role, and the opera, is the monastery scene, starting with the glorious Madre, pietosa vergine and finishing with La vergine degli angeli. This whole section, with Rossi-Lemeni a wonderfully sympathetic, if woolly-voiced Padre Guardiano, is a locus classicus of Callas’s art, her voice responsive to every conflicting emotion in Leonora’s heart, her darkly plangent tone absolutely perfect for the character. I doubt you will ever hear it more movingly or truthfully conveyed.

For the rest, Tucker is a strong, virile presence, but often mars his singing with unstylish aspirates and sobs, as if he is trying to do an impression of an Italian tenor. Tagliabue was in his late 50s and sounds it, but Capecchi makes an excellent Melitone and Clabassi a firm voiced (far firmer than Rossi-Lemeni) Calatrava. Elena Nicolai makes little of the somewhat thankless character of Preziosilla, but she is at least more than adequate.

And Serafin is at his very best, dramatically incisive (just listen to those stabbing chords when Leonora is mortally wounded in the last act) and sweepingly lyrical in the best Italian tradition.

The Warner reissue sounds very good to me, and gains on my previous version in containing the whole of Acts I and II on the first disc, which means there is no break in Leonora’s great Act II scena, leaving Act III and IV with a disc each.

A superb set, and one of Callas’s greatest recordings. Too bad she never sang the role again.

Callas’s Studio Aida

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Recorded 10-12, 16-20, 23-24 August 1955, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

I’m going to make a confession. Aida is not my favourite Verdi opera. I find it hard to identify with any of the characters, and they usually emerge as representatives rather than real people. It is full of great music, but I have to admit I admire it rather than love it. Nor would the role of Aida be considered a natural for Callas, though she sang it, with a great deal of success, quite often between her debut in the role in 1948 and her last stage appearances in it in 1953, this 1955 recording being the last time she would ever sing the complete role, though she returned to the aria Ritorna vincitor and the Nile duet with Radames (with Corelli) late in her career in the mid 1960s. Interestingly enough, though one doesn’t think of Aida as a Callas role, when the now defunct International Opera Collector magazine conducted a poll of its readers to assemble the ideal Aida cast, Callas was one of the favourites, alongside such famous Aidas as Ponselle and Leontyne Price.

The reason for this can only be that she brings the rather placid character of Aida to life like no other. Though she may not have the sweetness of timbre one might ideally want from an Aida, there are plenty of other rewards. She takes a little while to settle down in the first trio, but Ritorna vincitor is alive with meaning and contrast. Just listen to the way she spits out her hatred for del egizii coorti, the power with which she exhorts her compatriots to destroy the legions, with particular emphasis on the word struggete, the complete change of colour at Ah! Sventurata che dissi, the tenderness with which she sings of her love for Radames and the pain and desperation in her voice at Da piu crudeli angosce un core affranto; the last imprecation to the Gods sung with her tone drenched in sorrow, her legato as usual impeccable. Aida’s cruel predicament is set before us in this one aria with a psychological penetration second to none.

There are wondrous little details in the ensuing duet with Amneris too, like the touch of pride that enters her tone at Mia rivale! Ebben sia pure, quickly withdrawn when she realises she could easily give away her true identity.

But it is the Nile Scene that makes the greatest impression in this set. It starts with Aida’s O patria mia, which some commentators have found to be the weak link in her portrayal, but she yearns most wistfully, floating the tone wonderfully at O freschi valli. She always had problems with the ascent to top C, but it is a lot more solid here than she is often given credit for. It may not be dolce as marked by Verdi, but I don’t hear the wobble that so many commentators claim to have problems with. The following duet is magnificent music and magnificently sung by both Callas and Gobbi, and the finest realisation of it on disc. I doubt any singers have come close to them in the way they create drama in sound, and Serafin is at his very best in this scene too. I found it impossible to hold back the tears as Callas launched into that glorious tune at O patria, patria, quanto mi costi, and how brilliantly Serafin makes the violins weep with her.

The duet with Radames is hardly less fine, though Tucker can be a bit graceless at times. Yet again, Callas brings out a wealth of detail, like the insinuating way she sings Pur, se tu m’ami with that slight portamento on the word m’ami. She plays Radames brilliantly here, wonderfully seductive when she sings La tra foreste vergini. This is operatic singing on the highest level. In the last act too, she has something to offer, singing with grace and accuracy the difficult fioriture of Vedi? Di morte l’angelo.

As already mentioned Gobbi is superb as the implacable Amonasro, masculine and forthright of tone,  though still able to inject some tenderness into his duet with Aida. Tucker has the right heroic timbre for the role of Radames, but he can be a bit lachrymose, and tends to aspirate and sob, as if mimicking the mannerisms of a true Italian tenor. Barbieri is more subtle than I remember her, and provides a barnstorming Amneris, though I have come to prefer Baltsa on Karajan’s second recording, who reminds us that Amneris is a young princess and a valid rival for Aida.

Serafin is on top form, conducting in the best Italian tradition, lyrical and dramatic in equal measure. There may not be any great surprises or revelations, but his deep understanding of the music and its style is its own reward.

All in all, it was a great surprise to re-discover this set, to enjoy the opera more than I thought I would, and to find myself appreciating Callas’s very individual take on the role